Mary Todd Lincoln on Trial (Part 2 of 4)

Continued from Part 1

Even before Mary Todd Lincoln arrived in Chicago, her son had already received medical advice about what to do with his mother.   Since his law partner's nephew was a physician, Robert Lincoln consulted him first.   He was then referred to Doctor Robert T. Patterson, chief physician of Bellevue Place (a private sanitorium for women near Chicago) who was also a former superintendent for state hospitals for the insane in Indiana and Iowa. 

Knowing that committing the former First Lady would require a strong legal team, Robert also began recruiting legal experts including eminent trial lawyer Leonard Swett.   As an old friend of Abraham Lincoln, Swett knew the entire family and also knew the delicacy needed in dealing with the case.   It also helped that he was a legal authority on the insanity defense and was personally acquainted with most of the mental illness experts in the area.   Swett  promptly began assembling a medical team including the two physicians who had tended Tad Lincoln in his final illness.   Mary's own physician, Dr. Willis Danforth, was recruited to testify on her medical history during the trial.    Since none of them were experts in mental illness, Swett also retained two of the foremost experts on mental medicine in the Midwest, Nathan Swift Davis and James Stewart Jewell.    Jewell was the founder and editor of the Chicago Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases (now  the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease) while Davis was a former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

By May 1875, Robert Lincoln's "dream team" of lawyers and psychiatric experts met in the law offices of Ayer and Kales where he described his mother's symptoms.   Since her own physician testified that he had been treating Mary for "nervous derangement and fever in her head" as early as 1873, the case for her committment to a mental hospital seemed clear enough.   According to Dr. Danforth,  his patient had told him that she believed an Indian spirit was removing wires from her eyes and bones from her cheeks.   Though these delusions eventually subsided, she would later say that her husband had told her  she would die soon.   Danforth described this condition as "debility of the nervous system" and that her strange symptoms included the belief that someone was trying to poison her.   There was also the matter of her fixation that Robert was seriously ill and what happened afterward which alarmed her son enough to have her committed.   

While Dr. Danforth was the only one who examined Mary personally,  all of the medical experts consults agreed that she needed to be committed for her own safety.   Despite the fact that she was known to be taking heavy medication to help her sleep at night, the possiblity that this medication might have been responsible for her strange delusions was not considered.  Each one of the experts wrote a letter agreeing that commitment was necessary (again based solely on second-hand information about her condition).   There was still the matter of the trial though.  Under Illinois law at the time, confining someone to a psychiatric hospital (known as personal restraint) was a drawn-out legal process requiring a formal trial by jury.   Although commitment proceedings was straightforward enough for anyone considered violent or suicidal, that did not apply in Mary Todd Lincoln's case. 

Ironically, the fact that Mary was a woman made her committal to a state mental hospital easier than if she had been a man.  Most of the existing legislation focused on protecting men with property from wrongful committment (the poor were just relegated to state asylums as the law directed).   The need for a jury trial for Mary Lincoln stemmed from a high-profile Illinois case involving a woman who had been forcibly committed because her husband insisted she was insane.   The woman, Elizabeth Packard, managed to gain her freedom and later became an advocate against forcible commitment.    Largely due to her influence, the Illinois legislature changed the law to allow for jury trials.    As a result, Robert Lincoln and his lawyers were obliged to make as strong a legal case as possible for his mother's commitment. 

While Robert and his lawyers were trying to settle her fate, Mary was happily shopping and running up enormous bills (Robert had arranged credit with shopkeepers on the understanding that the goods would be returned later).  Along with her nurse, Mary was also watched over by a Pinkerton agent assigned to follow her.   Alarmed by her talk of traveling to Europe again,  Swett pressured authorities to take quick action in holding a trial. 

On May 18, the Pinkerton agent reported suspicious visitors around Mrs. Lincoln's room.   Since she distrusted banks and insisted on carrying thousands of dollars in government securities sewn into pockets in her petticoats,  the prospect of robbery (especially if she travelled abroad) meant that Robert could not wait any longer.   Nobody except Leonard Swett was particularly confident that the former First Lady could be successfully committed, even with the evidence presented by medical experts. 

Under Judge Marion R. M. Wallace,  a jury was quickly put together with some of the most prominent Chicagoans of that time.  That included several politicians (including a future member of William McKinley's cabinet).   Not only did Mary Lincoln's insanity need to be proven in court but her need for a legal conservator as well.    In the formal application that Robert filed (and, yes, the state of Illinois had an application form for that), he stated that his mother, "Mary Lincoln, widow of Abraham Lincoln, deceased, a resident of Cook county is insane and that it would be for her benefit and for the safety of the community that she should be confined in the Cook County Hospital or the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane."    The form also requested that a "jury of twelve good and lawful men ... determine the truth of the allegations in the foregoing petition contained... and that said Mary Lincoln an insane person after due hearing and proof, that a Conservator be appointed to manage and control her estate."

Staff at the hotel where Mary Lincoln was staying testified that she was a compulsive shopper who rarely opened the packages of things that she bought and often just piled them up in a hotel closet.   Robert gave details about his mother's reckless spending including thousands of dollars on home decorations despite the fact that Mary was essentially homeless.   Shop clerks, hotel staff, the Pinkerton detective, and Mrs. Lincoln's nurse all provided testimony at Swett's direction.  

By the time Mrs. Lincoln was finally told that she would be on trial to evaluate her sanity, the result was largely a foregone conclusion.   After three hours in a Chicago courtroom, Leonard Swett rested his case.   Although Mary was represented by Isaac Arnold, an old friend of both her and her husband, it hardly helped that he was as convinced as anyone that his client was insane.   When Arnold suggested to Swett that someone else should represent Mary,  Swett snapped at him, "That means you will put into her head, that she can get some mischievous lawyer to make us trouble; go and defend her, and do your duty. " 

Despite Arnold's half-hearted defense, the jury declared Mary Lincoln to be insane (but neither suicidal or homicidal).   Although later biographers would denounce the verdict as a "kangaroo court" and insist that she had been railroaded into the psychiatric hospital, there is no evidence of anything illegal about her committment.  While she might have benefitted from a stronger defense (and more time to prepare for that defense), her son was frantic to keep as many details of his mother's condition out of the newspapers as possible.   

As it was, the newspapers noted that Mrs. Lincoln appeared "stolid and unmoved" by the jury verdict. That would change rapidly just hours later.

To be continued.





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